Britain Helps Dads With Parental Leave, Just As UK Businesses Lash Out

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Man holding baby. Getty Images.

Will a more balanced approach to parental leave be the downfall of Britain? Business owners certainly seem to think so.

Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, announced on Monday that the government was extending the amount of parental leave that fathers can take after the birth of a child. Under the current rules, dads in the UK get a “paltry” two weeks off work around the time their child’s born, while mothers receive up to a year. By institutionalizing the idea that women should be the ones child-rearing and men should be the ones bread-winning, Clegg quite fairly deemed that “these rules patronize women and marginalize men.”

(More on TIME.com: Does Maternity Leave Harm Careers?)

In a first move to address the discrepancy, he announced that as of April 2011 changes to parental leave will allow fathers to take over the remainder of a woman’s maternity leave after six months. If a family decides that mom should return to work after seven months, dad can take leave for the remaining five. If mom needs the whole year off, it’s still hers for the taking. The new rules are meant to offer more choice, with room for families to decide the best course of action.

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What’s more, Clegg announced that the government was in “consultation” of further changes for 2015. New rules could include men being able to take over leave as early as six weeks after the baby was born and parents being able to alternate their time off in “chunks,” rather than in long stretches. There is also talk of an incentive policy being implemented for fathers–a “use it or lose it” block of leave to be taken within a set time after the baby arrives–to encourage fathers to use the time off and overcome the stigma that still lingers over paternal leave.

And this announcement seems to have thrown small business owners into a panic.

David Frost, the director general of the British Chambers of Commerce adamantly criticized the  changes. “This is too difficult for small businesses to deal with, and could prevent them from taking on staff at a time when they are expected to create wealth and jobs,” he said. “The rigid rules Nick Clegg refers to and plans to abolish are the very same rules needed by business to help them plan.”

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While he has a point, especially given the state of the UK’s economy, about the challenges the change could impose on businesses planning to cover for parental time off–”chunks” of leave seems far too ambiguous–the plan for 2015 hasn’t been set in stone. Clegg has said that by delaying the full changes to 2015, the government will be able to work with businesses to make adjustments that are “sustainable and affordable.”

So why the seemingly knee-jerk backlash from business advocates?

For example, Andrew Cave of the Federation of Small Businesses is quoted in the Daily Mail as saying “this is the wrong measure at the wrong time,” disregarding the fact that the plans aren’t being put into motion for another four years. He also, tellingly, doesn’t suggest when the right time might be.

What’s more, Daniel Barnett writes in the Guardian that the changes “will have a chilling impact on recruitment practice. Many employers shy away from hiring women of childbearing age. Clegg’s proposals might see employers becoming wary of recruiting anyone in their 20s or 30s.”

Apart from the ludicrousness of the suggestion that business owners would actually avoid hiring anyone who might possibly become a parent (which would mean all men as they can father children well into their 60s), the implication that it’s preferable for employers to discriminate against women alone, rather than men and women, is exactly the sort of bothersome attitude that changes such as Clegg’s are meant to remedy. (via Guardian)

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